‘Are we completely wrong in the way we’re teaching coding? Yes, probably…’

When it comes to IT skills, the UK needs to up its game

The modern world is built on software. So, it stands to reason that teaching future generations how to code is vital for our society and economy, right?


Rather than teaching how to code, we should be encouraging young people how to think like a coder.

The coding conveyor belt

The UK has made significant progress in establishing coding as part of the curriculum. In 2014, England became the first country in the world to mandate teaching coding to children at primary and secondary schools and, in November 2017, the Treasury allocated £100m to the launch of a National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) to train 8,000 computer science teachers.

But these policies are yet to make a difference. Uptake in the courses across all age groups – and particularly young women – is low and slow. Simon Peyton Jones, who chairs the NCCE admitted, it’ll be 2024 before the first child “falls off that conveyor belt”.

By the time we get to 2024, software will have changed.

The future is low-code

More than 500 million new apps will be built in the next five years. That’s a lot of apps. In fact, more than the total number of apps built in the last 40 years. But given companies are struggling to recruit software developers, how on earth are these apps going to be built?

“More than 500 million new apps will be built in the next five years. That’s a lot of apps. In fact, more than the total number of apps built in the last 40 years”

The answer lies in low-code.

Low-code or no-code platforms make it easy for people to design, build and launch applications quickly, without fiddling around with technical lines of code and deep understanding of operating systems or scalability requirements.

The adoption of these solutions is set to be quick. Gartner estimates that low-code and no-code software will represent more than 65% of application development inside companies by 2024.

Should we cut our losses?

Some argue that the government should abandon its investment in computing education before low-code makes it obsolete.

But this would be hasty and short-sighted.

Firstly, there will always be a specialised need for coders who create the backend functionality for low and no-code platforms. But more importantly, learning computing at school should enable young people to learn how to think like coders.

The economy needs problem-solvers

We need to teach computing students how to think, not what to think.

Having spoken to some of the country’s best developers, there is a recurring pattern: the memorable lessons from their early days of coding were not technical specifics but rather techniques for tackling complex problems. They say, in these informative days, they learnt how to address issues by using a systematic trial and error approach within a challenging framework.

It’s very crude, but these are the steps most successful coders follow and should be ingrained in every student, as early as possible:

  1. Understand the problem: if you can’t succinctly explain the problem, you don’t understand it well enough
  2. Plan to divide and conquer: breaking the problem into smaller, manageable sub problems at the beginning of the process makes the issue less daunting and solutions more achievable
  3. Teamwork: there’s truth to the saying that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Young people have much to learn from the collaborative approach the developer community takes. Coders know that bringing in outside advice or splitting a task brings a fresh perspective and can unblock barriers
  4. Repeat: students of all disciplines know that there is no substitute for practice

So how can we inspire this style of thinking in more pupils?

Lower barriers to entry

We must build an easy path for young people to develop coder-like cognitive skills. The only way this is possible is by providing the opportunity – to whoever wants them – to learn how to use and interact with real-world tools.

And the 2020 GitHub Education Classroom Report shows that younger developers now expect remote access and the pandemic has proved remote learning is entirely possible. It should also be equally accessible for all. That’s why we provide GitHub Education for free to educators and pupils all over the world.

The future

Having access to Google Translate doesn’t mean we should stop teaching our children French or Spanish. Similarly, a low- or no-code future does not mean we should stop teaching computing and programming.

But we do need to refocus the skills we’re prioritising in these lessons to ensure the government’s existing investment in computing education is not wasted. As educators, it’s our duty to inspire the next generation to problem-solve like developers and equip them with the tools they need.

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